Heading home this past holiday, I found myself stuck in traffic. I had left my apartment five hours after I planned and got to Philadelphia just in time for rush hour.
Sitting in traffic, I heard the familiar wail of an ambulance siren coming from a distance. I looked in my rearview mirror and, sure enough, the flashing lights appeared to grow brighter and more urgent by the second. Cars veered off to the side and I got ready to pull onto the rumble strips as the ambulance slowly parted the congestion of holiday traffic.
Had this happened two or three years ago, I might have smirked to myself. Almost instinctively, two questions would have jumped to my mind: “What happened?” and “How drunk was he?” Having worked for many of the ambulance companies in Centre County, I had once logically assumed that every other ambulance in the world must have been responding to clumsy, inebriated patients as well.
As a professional, I obligingly treated each person with patience and a reasonable amount of empathy. On the inside, however, my co-workers and I shook our heads and rolled our eyes. While each encounter is treated as an emergency situation, inebriation is a lot more preventable than, say, a stroke or a seizure. And while I’m often facetious while talking about my years with Centre County EMS, last year’s tragedy reminds us that there is a much darker side to overconsumption of alcohol.
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But let us, for the moment, imagine that most students have read the signs scattered around campus and understand the physical dangers of alcohol. Let’s hope they still remember the legacy left by freshman Joe Dado and know that drinking can impair their judgment; and let’s assume they know that alcohol poisoning is a very real and a very quick way to die. In truth, I think very few people understand the devastating realities of these consequences, but for now, let’s say that most college students know how drinking can negatively affect themselves.
What they might not know is how irresponsible drinking can affect others. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, about 12,000 people died due to drunken drivers last year. But let’s even say that most people are cognizant of the dangers of drunken driving. What many people don’t even think about is that when an ambulance is called in for an alcohol overdose, it’s taking away that ambulance from another person in need of help.
The way your local emergency medical system works is this: Each ambulance company in the county has its own specific area that it covers and a certain number of ambulances it staffs 24/7. For example, University Ambulance Service is responsible for the Penn State campus and usually staffs one ambulance. When an ambulance is sent to an emergency and another concurrent emergency occurs, usually an ambulance will have to be sent from another area. The travel time for this ambulance is dependent on which ambulance is available and how many other emergencies are going on in the county at a given time.
This is where the problem arises. Alcohol overdoses are too prominent a feature of State College emergency medical services. They tie up valuable resources, leaving other patients in medical distress waiting.
According to the American Heart Association, a person experiencing cardiac arrest can accrue irreversible brain damage within four to six minutes. Furthermore, with every minute that passes without medical treatment, a victim’s survival rate decreases by 10 percent. And despite the young population, heart attacks occur in State College fairly frequently. They happen on campus, downtown — pretty much everywhere.
If Penn State’s ambulance is busy taking an alcohol overdose to the hospital and someone experiences a heart attack on campus, an ambulance farther away must be called in. In a situation in which life or death is determined by the second, this can have devastating consequences for the patient.
Heart disease isn’t the only time-dependent emergency. By their very definition, each emergency relies on a quick response to help the patient. Epileptic seizures, diabetic emergencies and physical trauma require quick medical attention. Most of these patients need to be taken to the hospital, and federal law prohibits an ambulance from letting go of one patient to pursue another even if the condition is more severe. And this is just at the prehospital level. Overcrowding of the emergency room is a topic in and of itself.
We shouldn’t be calling in ambulances to treat alcohol overdoses, although if someone is in need of help, whatever the reason, dial 911. Students shouldn’t be drinking so much that they need an ambulance, because not only is drinking severely damaging to the body, it’s harmful, in many ways, to others. It severely taxes our emergency medical system, leading to substandard patient care.
And unlike other emergencies, alcohol overdoses are preventable. Having been a student at Penn State, I not only understand, I’ve been a part of the culture and would certainly not advocate abstinence. That is, I would never tell anyone not to drink. But knowing the inherent dangers, I would tell people this: Drink. But please, for yourself, for your family and friends, for the EMTs who have to take care of you and for the others you might end up hurting, drink responsibly.
As the ambulance drove by my car with a deafening blare that recent day in Philadelphia, I felt that familiar curiosity creeping up and I wondered what had happened. This time, cynicism was erased by experience and ignorance replaced by knowledge. As traffic slowly realigned itself and the swiveling lights faded into the darkening night, I found myself saying, almost as a prayer, “I hope it gets there in time.”
Robby Wu graduated from Penn State in 2009 with degrees in life sciences and psychology and is a first-year medical student at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.